Can The Trail Blazers Truly Contend?
Heading into the 2011 playoffs the Portland Trail Blazers were a trendy upset pick by a wide range of fans and media to eliminate the Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the postseason.
It didn’t happen.
The Blazers pushed the eventual champion Mavericks to six games in a hard-fought, competitive series, which now leads to the question; when the 2012 season begins can the Portland Trail Blazers truly contend for Western Conference supremacy and make a run at a title?
HOOPSWORLD’s executive editor Jason Fleming covers the Blazers extensively and offered the following analysis on what it would take for Portland to get over the proverbial hump.
The Blazers COULD be contenders if everything goes right. IF is the word there, along with another one: HEALTH.
If Brandon Roy comes back healthy and forces himself back into the starting lineup or embraces a role as a sixth man. If Greg Oden is re-signed and can move past his knee injuries. If Marcus Camby stays healthy in the middle. If Raymond Felton blends in as well with this roster as we think he can. If Nolan Smith, Elliot Williams and Luke Babbitt can make meaningful contributions. And, most of all, if there is a 2011-12 season.
Why is that one meaningful? Because Camby, Felton and Nic Batum are all free agents (Batum likely restricted) in 2012 and there is no guarantee the team will stay together. Should they use an amnesty clause on Roy that would further throw a wrench into things. With no season, Oden would also be a restricted free agent, as could also Armon Johnson. Earl Barron and Chris Johnson would also be free agents. That would leave the Blazers with $52.7 million committed to seven players in 2012-13 (pushing the salary cap no matter what it is), no center, and only Smith under contract at point guard.
The bottom line is that’s quite a lot of ifs and the chances of it all coming together and making this team a contender isn’t very high. And, with every day this lockout progresses, the likelihood of this team as currently incarnated being around to attempt to make that leap gets lower and lower.
It’s obvious a lot of situations need to break in the Blazers’ favor in order to legitimately contend for the Western Conference throne. But they’re not the only squad facing a myriad of issues which could turn out to be major areas of concern.
How will Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant’s troublesome knee hold up as he continues to age? The Lakers are also faced with implementing new head coach Mike Brown’s system, departing from the famed Triangle Offense which Bryant won all of his titles playing within.
The Mavericks also have the unrestricted free agency status of their defensive backbone center Tyson Chandler to contend with. Point guard Jason Kidd is also nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career.
So while the Blazers have a plethora of question marks which require immediate attention, one thing is for certain; Portland already has an emerging big man in LaMarcus Aldridge who may be more than equipped to continue strapping the club to his back this season and beyond.
Veteran center Marcus Camby believes Aldridge has the goods, even if he doesn’t receive the mainstream attention bestowed upon his peers.
“When Brandon [Roy] went down, I think the franchise became LaMarcus’s and he grabbed hold of the reigns and never let go,” Camby told HOOPSWORLD at the John Lucas charity game. “I think this guy is a future Hall of Famer and a perennial All-Star.”
“I’ve always seen the potential in him as an opposing player going against him,” Camby added. “But having been his teammate for the past two years I get to see his progress on a daily basis. I mean his upside is tremendous. He’s a big guy who does it all. He can shoot, play with his back to the basket and the most important thing about him is he’s so unselfish and he’s a great teammate.”
Aldridge’s All-Star snub last season could easily be considered one of worst omissions in the past decade, but All-Star nod or not, everyone studying his game over the past season saw the growth and maturity as he transitioned from sidekick to leading man.
A draft night deal sent underrated but solid veteran point guard Andre Miller to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Raymond Felton who was looking for a team with an opportunity to start.
Felton, a six year veteran, will receive that chance in Portland’s young backcourt.
Felton played in Charlotte with forward Gerald Wallace and Portland is hoping the chemistry blends in their lineup.
Aldridge took nothing away from the contributions Miller provided the team, but he strongly feels Felton could be the key acquisition which gets the squad out of the first round for the first time since the 2000 season.
“I definitely see positive things happening between myself and Ray Felton,” Aldridge told HOOPSWORLD. “He’s definitely hungry and motivated. He’s young. He has some things to prove. Neither one of us have ever been out the first round of the playoffs. It’s going to be real big for us.”
Title aspirations may be a bit of reach for the 2012 season, but there’s no reason to believe the Blazers can’t get out of the first round and give a team fits in the Western Conference Semis.
Well, if the “If’s” break in their favor and the injury bug finally cuts the unit some slack that is.